Wednesday, August 10, 2016

Review: Iron Man 3 (2013)

To succumb to my own bit of mythologizing, Marvel had to realize, along with at least half of their audience, just what a safe, by-the-numbers, boring-ass sequel that Iron Man 2 was, and that Favreau's gradual fade out of the franchise was either a cause or a symptom. It's a problem if even the true believers lament what could have been. Why else say yes to a bunch of seemingly crazy ideas from a madman if you didn't have something to prove?

Given all of the press surrounding Whedon and the tough Age of Ultron production, it's difficult to determine exactly how much leeway Marvel gives its helmsmen. Tony Zou, Every Frame a Painting video essayist and twenty-year old doomsayer, hypothesized on his twitter feed that working for Disney doesn't offer you more opportunities, it imprisons you. Maybe an accurate assessment for Kenneth Branagh, who directed Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit between two Disney properties (one a live-action remake of a classic cartoon). It certainly scans for Jon Favreau (who directed Cowboys & Aliens and Chef before returning to direct a live-action remake of a classic cartoon). Can anybody get a Great Mouse Detective script delivered to Shane Black's office?

Black's personality does shine through in what is still recognizably a modern superhero film. Amid all his usual trademarks (including gratuitous naked breasts, appearing the only way they could: on a giant stuffed rabbit) and noticeably borrowed material from his previous work, this is an immensely satisfying action film. Instead of a dumb, reverse engineering of Stark's heart condition and resulting overconfidence(?), the demons he needs to conquer are much more serious (PTSD standing in for alcoholism and weaving into the soldier-for-hire plot). His journey's progression is earned with his own wit, through losing fights and then barely winning fights and then kicking some motherfucking ass in breathtakingly staged action sequences, ones that rank best in the entire series. Much better than being handed half the cure by S.H.I.E.L.D. and a deus ex solution hidden in a model.

But there are some fairly major flaws as well. The fusion with an 80's action film was bound to result in rejected tissue. The behavior of the villains are cruel enough to be off-putting, entering that Die Hard 2 level of sociopathic violence where killing goes beyond merely the cost of doing business, not Marvel's style at all. The middle section of the movie, Stark solving a mystery in a small town without a suit or an AI with a precocious youngster at his side, barely justifies itself before it concludes. Two decades ago, this would have been the whole movie. These days, we have toys to sell, don't we?

The (required) appearance of the Mandarin bumps into at least one unnecessary villain, one that should have been played by Sam Rockwell, and crowd an already packed movie. So much time is spent on "fun" that basic requirements are moved past too quickly. Clearer rules regarding the Extremis soldiers would have helped -- they seem to be incredibly scary and powerful, but they also can be killed if you hit them in one specific spot? Eh. Iron Man flying away on autopilot after his house is destroyed is a straight-up cheat, as well as the inexplicable disappearance of an Extremis soldier later in the small town. And it seems like Wing Attack Plan R (or whatever) should have been implemented much sooner... yknow, when people were falling out of the sky... or not at all. Oh shit, I forgot already, we have toys to sell.

Perhaps the most divisive entry into the MCU has turned me into somewhat of an apologist, a staunch defender of a movie I only like, not love. I'm telling ya, these giant moving parts may shudder and grind, but the suit flies. It's unfortunate that taking story risks has backfired on them, but I have a feeling that Marvel will be just fine. I hope Shane Black will be too.

Friday, August 5, 2016

Review: Knight of Cups (2015)

Christian Bale, indistinguishable from Ben Affleck and Sean Penn, wanders around the decadent wasteland of the Los Angeles overworld, hopping from girlfriend to topless girlfriend, mumbling something or other about a lifetime of regrets while the latest in filmmaking technology is used to say absolutely nothing. We'd sure feel bad about it if these people weren't so goddamned rich.

It is unsurprising at this point that Malick uses his legacy to strip his own work to its core, down to what is essentially a visual symphony of his own subconscious. Images are strung together randomly, title cards reference material we haven't read, narration is present because something has to be said, and the nudity is there to wake up the audience. Do the investors ever wonder if they were tricked into financing a vacation?

To be fair, there is a spark here that, had he hired the editor of the trailer, could have ignited into a fireball. If the staged earthquake near the start of the film led into the beginning of a plot, if scenes actually connected to those around it, if he had drawn parallels from the balsa wood sets on the WB Lot to the stone artifice of the city itself, if extemporaneous dialogue blurred with actors playing actors reciting lines, if he hadn't missed so many opportunities to build something, there could have been an actual movie here. Malick confining himself to a metropolic prison and drawing connections from metaphysics to the incomprehensible nature of the movie industry practically films itself, but even he couldn't resist falling back on his old standbys: shots of mountains and fields and oceans curving into the horizon and wasting our time with bullshit. More like Yawn of Time, right guys?

This long after 1973, I think I'm finally beginning to understand Malick. The man who always seemed so uninterested in screenplays and storytelling structure is exactly as he seems, no artifice no filter. Myth is biography to him, and that has become his own hell. The manifestations through the narration, actors speaking inaudibly, fish-eye lenses and slow dollys on nature, all of it comes from a man trying to break free of himself, a man hopelessly addicted to the search for meaning but unsuited to the task. Doomed.